The House moved toward a vote Wednesday on a long-sought rewrite of the 2002 No Child Left Behind education law that would roll back the federal government's authority to push academic standards and tell failing schools how to improve.
The legislation, a compromise reached by House and Senate negotiators, would continue No Child's requirement for annual reading and math testing of children in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But it would shift back to the states the decision-making power over how to use students' performance on the tests to assess teachers and schools. The measure also would end federal efforts to tie test scores to teacher evaluations.
"I think that we will have a strong majority of the majority, and we'll have a strong majority of the minority," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who led the House-Senate conference committee on the legislation. "The big picture here is that the bill moves from this massive intrusion of the federal government, moves back to state and local control."
A compromise bill was a long time coming. No Child Left Behind, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, ushered in a new era of accountability standards and testing for the nation's public schools. But it subsequently fell into disfavor in some quarters, widely criticized as unworkable, unrealistic and too punitive for educators.
The law has been due for renewal since 2007, but it got caught up in the broader debate over the federal role in public education.
"It's been a long road and it's a good bill," said Kline's Democratic counterpart on the committee, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia. "We don't tell states what to do...but it's clear that they have to have high standards and address in a meaningful way any achievement gaps."
Despite the bipartisan support, some conservative lawmakers have said they won't support it. And civil rights groups are giving it only lukewarm support, saying it's an improvement over No Child Left Behind, but still falls short of ensuring a quality education to the millions of students of color, students with disabilities, and English-learning students they represent.
The bill "cedes considerable responsibility to states. The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of underserved students," said The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of groups, in a letter sent to lawmakers.
Under the bill, there would no longer be federal sanctions for schools labeled as underperforming. However, states would be required to intervene in the nation's lowest-scoring 5 percent of schools, in high school dropout factories and in schools with persistent achievement gaps -- something Democrats fought hard to ensure in any bill.
The Senate is expected to vote on the measure next week.
The White House had threatened to veto an earlier version of the bill that passed the House in July. Officials called the compromise now in play an improvement over the House bill -- and a version passed by the Senate. But the administration also stopped short of saying that President Barack Obama would sign it.
No Child Left Behind was signed into law by Bush after passing Congress with broad partisan support. But it quickly became clear that its lofty goals for student achievement were unrealistic. Unions and more liberal voices in the education universe criticized it for placing too much of an emphasis on testing. Among conservatives, the law was assailed for allowing too much federal intrusion in public schools.
The compromise bill, among other things, would:
--Bar the Education Department from mandating or giving states incentives to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, such as the college and career-ready curriculum guidelines known as Common Core. The standards were created by the states, but have become a lightning rod for those who sought a reduced federal role in education. The administration offered grants through its Race to the Top program for states that adopted strong academic standards for its students.
--End waivers the Obama administration has granted to more than 40 states. These waivers offered exemptions to the more onerous parts of No Child when it became clear the standards set forth there would not be met.
--Would not permit portability -- allowing money to follow low-income students to public schools of their choice, an idea embraced by Republicans. Those dollars would remain at struggling schools, under the bill. But it would allow for a small pilot program that would let some federal money move with students in some school districts.
--Encourage testing caps. An amendment from Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, says states should set caps on the total amount of time kids spend taking tests. Bennet says federal testing requirements have resulted in additional layers of state and district level tests, and some of those may be redundant or unnecessary.